A group of Santal women wait for relief aid after being evicted from disputed land in Gaibandha district of northern Bangladesh on Nov. 6. (ucanews.com photo)
On a sunny November morning, Sonamoni Murmu and her 12-year-old son, Sajal collect grass to feed their only cow, from a small paddy field in northern Gaibandha district, Bangladesh.
Murmu, 40, a mother of three sons, knows how to get food for their cow but can’t say the same for her family.
"We have gruel in the morning given by a voluntary aid group and we have some leftover rice from last night soaked in water. Maybe we will eat that for lunch, we don’t know what we will have for supper," Murmu said.
Murmu and her family have been living like refugees since Nov. 6. They are staying with a neighbor in Madarpur village, living on a veranda and going unfed and half-fed due to an ongoing food crisis.
They are among about 2,500 indigenous Santal people, mostly Catholic Christian, who were forcibly evicted off disputed land by workers from Rangpur Sugar Mill with approval from a local lawmaker, administration and police.
Mill workers set fire to Santal homes and police fired shots when the tribe tried to resist. Three Santal men were killed and dozens were injured in a series of clashes on Nov. 6-7.
"Police fired shots indiscriminately and thugs set fire to our houses. People were busy with household chores and some were cooking supper when it happened. Everyone fled for lives. All belongings were either looted or burned," Murmu said.
Mostly poor and landless people, the Santals took refuge in two nearby villages: Madarpur and Joypur. Some of them erected informal settlements out of banana leaves, polythene and bamboo; others like Murmu’s family have taken refuge with neighbors.
Indigenous Santal people, evicted from disputed land in Gaibandha district of northern Bangladesh on Nov. 6, take lunch with simple gruel. (ucanews.com photo)
Some of the homeless have taken shelter in a small Catholic church building in Madarpur and also in a local primary school, disrupting lessons.
"Along with our home, our school books were burned up. My two brothers and I have stopped going to school. We don’t know when we can go to school again, because some people are now living there," said Sajal, a 5th grader.
The land dispute goes back to 1952 when the government bought 744.62 hectares of the Santals' ancestral home to farm sugarcane. The sale agreement said that the land would be used to cultivate sugarcane only and if other crops were planted then it would first be returned to the district administration and then to the original owners.
Over the years, farm authorities leased out most of the land to cultivate crops including rice, wheat, maize and mustard leading the Santals to demand the return of their ancestral lands.
Farm authorities evicted 1,600 tribal families who were squatting 40 hectares claiming the land belonged to their forefathers. They encircled the two villages, where evicted people took refuge with a barbed wire fence to restrict their movement.
Now they cannot seek work outside or access agricultural fields leading to another round of misery. Church groups like Caritas and the Missionaries of Charity have been offering basic essentials to the Santals.
People like Murmu have been forced to sneak out in order to find food and work. "We are citizens of Bangladesh, so they have no right to encircle us like animals," Murmu said.
Abdul Awal, managing director of the mill, said that the solution lies with the Santals.
"We offered work to the Santals and cash handouts for those occupying our farmland, but they didn’t want to listen to us. They attacked our workers as they went to harvest sugarcane and also police with bows and arrows," Awal said.
"The solution lies with them — whether or not they want to get back to normal life with government rehabilitation and our support. The government and court will see if this land should remain with the mill or returned to the original owners," he said.
Abdus Samad, deputy commissioner of Gaibandha, said vested interests are leading the Santals astray.
"The government acquired this land when the mill was set up, but the tribal people are being misled by a vested quarter and wrongly demanding the land back. If the land needs to be returned it should only be through due legal process," he said.
However, Murmu and her clan are defiant.
"Local political leaders promised we would get our land back but they have abandoned us and taken the attackers’ side. But we won’t give up and we will fight to get our land back no matter what happens," she said.
An indigenous Santal child tries to sneak through a barbed wire fence installed by local sugar mill authorities around two villages where thousands of Santal people have taken refuge after being evicted on Nov.6. (ucanews.com photo)